Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.
The above is a translation of the kontakion of the Nativity/Christmas composed by St Romanos the Melodist in the late 5th or early 6th century. Originally this kontakion was one stanza of a much larger work which might best be described as a sung homily. As Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the translator of many of St Romanos’ kontakia describes it, “The main body of a kontakion was chanted from the pulpit by the preacher after the reading of the gospel, while a choir, or even the whole congregation, joined in the refrain.” In the kontakion on the Nativity of Christ the refrain which would be repeated by the people is the final line: a little Child, God before the ages. St Romanos, with an inspired brilliance, summarizes in this short refrain the meaning of the entire kontakion and captures the paradox and the mystery of Christmas.
This mystery - that the little child of the manger was also at one and the same time God before the ages - was more than many could bear. In fact, throughout most of the first centuries of the Christian era the major heresies arose precisely because men could not fathom the paradox. They could not hold together these seemingly disparate realities of God and man, created and uncreated, spirit and matter, which the Gospel proclaimed as united in Christ. And so they sought to render the Gospel explainable in any number of ways. They said, for example, that Christ was God but not really a man, only seeming to be a man. Or they said that he was a man in whom God dwelt as in a temple. One highly-placed heretic of the fifth century, Nestorius the Patriarch of Constantinople, famously (or, rather, infamously) said, “A crying baby in a manger is not the uncreated God!” The mystery that causes angels to tremble in amazement and which beggars the imagination - a little Child, God before the ages - was further than the heretics could go. Their minds could not go so low as the humble Son of the God did in the incarnation.
But in the face of these “other gospels”, as St Paul called them, the Church continued to uphold the mystery and the paradox of the incarnation. It insisted, in fact, that this paradox was the central dogma of the Church, the one truth without which the Church was completely and wholly bankrupt. For without this there was no dogma of the Trinity, and neither was there hope of salvation. Christ is, we confess, truly God and truly man, at one and the same time. Only in this mystery is God known; only in this paradox is our salvation.
As we approach the great and holy feast of our Lord’s Nativity the Church invites us to come to the cave and to wonder at the mystery of Christ. Our only entrance into the mystery, though, is through the humbleness and meekness of Christ. As we bow our bodies and our minds in wonder, awe, and love, only then will we perceive in our midst - a little Child, God before the ages.
With love in Christ,